Speaking with intent in Parkinson’s disease: Northeastern’s Speech-Language and Hearing Center receives grant

Northeastern’s Speech-Language and Hearing Center (SLHC) was presented with a generous grant from the Texas-based Parkinson Voice Project. The grant was used for the launch of SPEAK OUT! and LOUD Crowd, a specialized speech therapy program for people with Parkinson’s disease. For people with Parkinson’s, speech clarity and vocal strength can often be impaired, leading to challenges with communication and quality of life. The grant provides Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) graduate students with education and training in the SPEAK OUT! program and enables the Center to offer this complimentary evidence-based intervention to the public. 

In the SLHC’s first endeavor, SLP graduate students Sabrina Bender and Olivia Fahey were teamed with Rob Jacobson, who has been living with Parkinson’s for 15 years. The students worked with Jacobson three times a week over four weeks before moving on to group sessions. 

“SPEAK OUT! teaches people to speak with intent,” said Elizabeth Martin, an assistant clinical professor at Northeastern University. “Intent is the philosophy of the Parkinson Voice Project. People with Parkinson’s often produce speech that isn’t clear or loud enough for successful communication. The practice of speaking with deliberate intent is key to improving speech intelligibility.” 

Martin, who collaborates with fellow faculty members Kristen Allison and Sarah Young-Hong on a research study investigating the effectiveness of SPEAK OUT!, explained that, in this program, people with Parkinson’s are taught to speak with intentional projection of the voice. Research has shown this can improve the strength and volume of the voice and the clarity and articulation of speech sounds. 

Jacobson says his speech comes out more naturally every day and he’s not the only one who has noticed the improvements. 

“I speak to a friend on the phone on a regular basis,” he said. “They noticed I’m speaking more clearly. I’m speaking with more intent. They understand me (better).” 

“A big part of this program is to regain communication skills through specific exercises and to keep up the consistent practice and use of these skills,” Martin said. “Intent is not something you learn and then you stop practicing. You have to practice daily; you have to go to the maintenance groups.” 

Bender and Fahey said they appreciated Jacobson’s eagerness and enjoyed watching him work and make improvements. 

“I remember the first week, compared to the last time we met with him, it’s just a completely different voice,” Fahey said. 

Jacobson said he had no reservations about participating in the program and didn’t feel intimidated by any aspect of it. 

“I just went in with an open mind, and I’m glad I did,” he said. 

When the time comes to help another patient, the students feel ready. 

“They want help and that’s why I’m there,” Fahey said.  

“One of the things we talked about in our clinic class was building rapport with the client,” Bender said. “It’s important. It controls how treatment is going to go.” 

Everything came naturally for both students thanks to the training they received at Northeastern. They were supervised by Martin throughout the time they worked with Jacobson. Exercises were adjusted and tweaked according to the progress he made throughout the sessions. 

Martin called Jacobson a “successful first participant.” 

“We were very happy with how well it went. He’s definitely shown improvement, which is what we want to see.” 

“It greatly increases my confidence,” Jacobson said. “I want people to be able to understand me when I speak. It helps me go about my day, speaking to people. I feel proud to be a part of this.” 

Jacobson sees a growing need for this given the aging population who will be seeking support in the near future, and Martin, Fahey, and Bender agree. 

“It’s definitely prevalent,” Martin said. “And the number of people that have reached out, who are interested in this program, is growing. We really want to be able to offer this program to anyone who needs it. People can access the program and benefit from it without worrying about any financial issues.” 

Sessions are conducted by Speech-Language Pathology graduate students under Martin’s supervision and are offered free of cost through participation in a research study. For more information about participation in SPEAK OUT! and LOUD Crowd, you are encouraged to contact Martin at (617) 373-6891 or [email protected]. After an initial evaluation, there will be individual therapy sessions three times per week over four weeks followed by weekly group therapy. This program has been shown to improve a person’s ability to converse with family and friends and to foster greater participation in community, work, and hobbies.